Henry Rollins says he likes to think of himself as his “own little punk rock journalist.”
But the former frontman of the legendary Los Angeles hardcore punk band, Black Flag, is just being modest. He’s already proven himself to be a true master of the trade.
Rollins is talking about the reporting he did for his most recent book, “Occupants,” which features dozens of photographs he shot over the course of seven years in war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan that are as intense as Rollins’ stare, and prose as raw and ferocious as the anti-establishment lyrics he belted out during the Reagan era.
“Welcome my friend. By the grace of almighty God, you have given me purpose. You have given me a reason to live and a reason to die just as your ancestors gave to my ancestors. I am sure that in your wide and wonderful America, you must have history books that tell of the thousands of men who have come to conquer this land, only to meet their deaths …We are a nation of warriors. It is what we know. You are soft men who need to be trained to fight. We are born to fight,” reads some of the text Rollins wrote, from the point of view of a mujahideen fighter, that accompanies a photograph of a deserted part of Afghanistan littered with remnants of the Soviet-Afghan war blocked off by a sign that warns, “MINES.”
Rollins wasn’t thinking of writing a book, which he admits was emotionally draining, when he first embarked on his journey. He said he was just searching for truth.
“I want to know more and see more,” Rollins writes in the introduction to “Occupants.” “I want to have a perception of the world that is not merely gained from reading books, keeping up on world events, and watching documentaries. “While one can learn much that way, those are, to a great degree, other people’s stories. Life is short. I want my own understanding. My own stories. So I travel as far and as wide as I can to try and learn as much as possible along the way … With great exception, I travel alone. I walk down streets, along rivers and train tracks, through slums, souks, deserts, forests, and ruins. It’s just me, a camera, and a notebook. I see what I see and meet whom I meet. I hope that the random nature of my wandering will allow me to bump into the truth now and then.”
That must have been what Joe Strummer, the late, great lead singer of The Clash, meant when he said, “Don’t write slogans. Write truths.” Rollins embodies these words by his actions.
“Occupants,” Rollins said, is his “antiwar,” “anti-globalization” book. The latter is underscored by two photographs he took in Indonesia in 2009, one of a shopkeeper selling Black Flag “My Rules” T-shirts and another of a woman wearing the shirt who had no idea what it meant.
But really, “Occupants” is some of the best damn boots-on-the-ground, unembedded reportage to have surfaced over the past decade.
In this wide-ranging, exclusive interview, Rollins shares his thoughts about politics, foreign policy, his disdain for John McCain, war and peace, Friedrich Nietzsche, Occupy Wall Street and reveals how he signs his hate mail.
Jason Leopold for Truthout: “Occupants” is an incredibly powerful book. The photographs you shot represent a reality we have not seen since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which made it very difficult for people to understand or connect with the conflicts.
Henry Rollins: You don’t think that’s on purpose?
JL: Well, what are your thoughts about it?
HR: Well, if you really want to get one single book that will show you what it really looks like pick up one of the Army Field manuals on injuries. It wasn’t exactly banned, but a few journalists got a hold of it and they tried to make it kind of hard to get, because it’s for doctors and it shows the wounds in country, like, you know, the leg gone, veins and bone hanging out, like what happens when you step on, or an IED [improvised explosive device] goes off. And then it shows the guy at Rammstein and then eight months later, as far as like, what was done reconstructive. It’s for doctors, so it is high-resolution clinical shots of stuff that is pretty mind-blowingly graphic as far as injuries. I bought the book. It is the only thing I’ve seen where you really get a chance to see what this stuff really looks like. And it really cuts thorough all the “keeping us safe” and all this. It’s just a bunch of young men, their bodies torn apart and the reconstructive surgery and that’s the only time I’ve ever seen anything that graphic besides that Baghdad ER documentary on HBO. And I think, there is a concerted effort to keep you and me, you know, the people, away from what it really looks like, ’cause when you’re selling war, when it’s such a big industry, you know, the military industrial complex, you’ve got to keep “Johnny” signing up for this and if you look at ads for the military it looks like a kick ass video game, with like some bitchin’ metal riff going and it appeals to young hormonal rage, you know, men with good cheekbones holding kick ass weapons. What they don’t tell you is the rest of it and the down side of it. And so obviously there is a lot of money and a lot of time and effort being spent on that campaign “perpetual war for perpetual peace,” as [the late] Gore Vidal said. Anyway, if they showed you too much of the gooey stuff then you wouldn’t show up for another dose of it and so I think that’s why you don’t get to see bodies of American dead, that’s why Bush didn’t go to funerals. To his credit, he did do a lot of Walter Reed visits under the radar, which I found out by going there a lot, I go there a lot myself, they said, “Bush did come here a lot” he just didn’t always talk about it, he’d make surprise visits. Which is kind of cool. It was the least he could do. But I think there is a real effort to not bring the war home too much. Why would you want to talk about it, when you want to sell the next chapter, which will be obviously leveling Tehran?
JL: It’s obviously important to you that the public has access to this information. How do you want the public to react to what you have witnessed?
HR: I want my fellow Americans to wise up! And I’m no professor. I’m a stupid high school graduate. But I want my fellow citizens to wise up and stop falling for this. I try with my limited, and my access is so limited, I’m not getting into Kabul with a camera, they’re not letting me get into Benghazi with a camera. I do what I can with my flimsy American passport and a visa. I get what I get and that book that you see is kind of what I get. In the next book the photos are a bit more heavy from Southern Sudan and Haiti and Cuba, some of the shots in Haiti are pretty sad and in Sudan I’m waking through mine fields, shallow graves and that was a 22-year war. So the effort of the book that you have, “Occupants,” the photos are one thing, the writing was the hard part. The writing was the part that took a lot of caloric burn. The photos you just take them, but the writing was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever taken on. The object was not to restrain myself and if I’m angry and if the photo made me mad, well, you know, there it goes.
JL: That’s what is truly profound about your book. Instead of writing, “This photograph was taken in Afghanistan in 2003 … ” you write from the point of view of a mujahideen fighter. Because your prose is packed with so much emotion, I’m wondering how it affected you emotionally while you were writing it?
HR: It does hit me hard, ’cause I’m not a doorknob. I got feelings. What I try and do is if I get too swept up in the emotion of it then I become ineffective and I’m not able to do the work and so I have to almost be forensic with it, where I kind of just have to hover above it. If I respond too emotionally I become…. I am no longer good at fighting these bastards. And so the writing for the book was incredibly difficult. You’ve obviously read it, there’s a lot of anger there and a lot and pain and I put myself into that. That kind of writing, I don’t do much of it because it hurts.
JL: Your pain certainly comes through.
HR: These days as a 51 year-old man I kind of come from more the angry, funny Op-Ed point of view. But that writing, to pay all due respect to the dignity of the people in those shots, who are such amazing people, I mean you do these trips and you meet such incredible people, I mean, they’re so strong and so beautiful.
JL: The book really does comes across as reportage. This is what unembedded journalism looks like.
HR: That’s what I was going for! I consider myself, you know, my own little punk rock journalist type.
JL: There’s a disturbing photograph of a skull that appears to be smiling with the words “KILLERS” and “CARBIDE & DOW” that was painted on a wall, if I am not mistaken, outside of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. That was the site of the 1984 gas leak that claimed the lives of thousands of people. How did you get in there?
HR: That was one of the most satisfying trips for me. I had to sneak in there. In 2008, I was making a documentary in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I was reading The Herald Tribune at breakfast and someone wrote a report on how Dow [Chemical Company] bought the thing from Union Carbide and how they’re not going to pay anybody [who suffered from the disaster] and they basically said, “Look the lawsuit’s over, go piss up a rope.” They [Dow] were just done. I did some research, looking things up, and I said, “Wow, it will be the 25th anniversary the next year. I gotta go!” I’m going to be there for the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. I just made up my mind I’m doing this. When I got there I found a terrified cab driver. When I got in the cab I said, “Union Carbide, India Limited!” I’m sure to a lot of people I appear to be a total a maniac. But the guy obviously knows where it is. Everyone knows where it is. We got there and I told him, “Park, I’ll be back.” I tried to go through the front and the cops said, “Oh no you don’t.” I tried to act like a dumb tourist but that didn’t work. I went around to the back and thought, “Oh this is easy” until I saw the armed men on motor bikes and I had to sneak thought the weeds like Mission Impossible, but I got the shots. And again, the stuff they dropped into the ground. Amnesty International did ground water, ground soil testing up to three kilometers away from Union Carbide and they’re finding traces of that stuff. And these people pump their water out of wells. There’s a picture in the book of a woman pumping water 25 yards away from Union Carbide. That water! You wouldn’t give that water to your worst enemy and that’s their water. There’s people around the Bhopal area with skin problems, reproductive health problems, central nervous system problems.
JL: There are times, and I’ve been honest about it, where it has been difficult to draft stories about the Guantanamo detainee who has been tortured. I never find that it’s easy to disconnect emotionally.
HR: Well, you’re sticking your head into the lion’s mouth, you’re crawling in, you’re going after it and so your going to pay. Nietzsche, who you don’t spend too much time with after the age of seventeen, did have that one great line about “he who stares into the abyss must know that the abyss also stares into him” and I never really understood that until my friend got killed and you really get your head around the idea of what horror means. It’s a truly awful thing, to really, kind of have that understanding of things and when you really peer into that. And that’s why all these kids come home from Iraq all screwed up, cause they’ve all seen … everyone there sees stuff that humans really shouldn’t see. That’s why they had so much shell shock in World War I. These were farm kids seeing body parts and they’re used to seeing cows in pastures and now they’re hearing incredibly loud noises and catastrophic human loss. There’s some great documentaries on shell shock. The Germans and the French never reported it but their troops were coming back with crazy walks and weird spasms. The British actually filmed it but it was happening with every military force. These kids were coming home completely fried. And so nowadays it’s in a video game, we just watch it.
JL: Some of these photographs you shot as early as 2003, but when did you sit down to write the text?
HR: I started writing the text for it many years later. The first thing I ever wrote for the book was the little boy standing in that big blank space in Mali and I left it very wide open just so you see, he looks so small, in this kind of big filthy blank space, because he’ll probably be living there the rest of his life. If you look closely at that photo his stomach is bloated, he’s malnourished. I wrote that in 2009. At the time, I thought, “well, I’ll do a photo book and I’ll put in a few of these little bits of writing.” Then I kept thinking about it and thought, “no, I’ll do a thing of writing for every single photo.” I marry myself to these ideas, and all of a sudden it goes from “I’m almost done” to “Oh, I haven’t even started.” Once I said ok, that was what the book was going to be, I realized I’ve got about seventy-five more things to write about and since I can’t allow myself to dial it in I just had to go, ok one photo a day or sometimes two. That’s what I did the Christmas holiday in 2010. I wrote about 12,000 words. I was off the road and the staff had gone home. I really put the screws to that manuscript and basically had this really awful bit of down time kind of living in all that anger. I had the time and that was the time to do it I had to turn the thing in ’cause I got five more books I’m working on. I mean the next photo book is almost done. There are also about four other books I’m working on.
JL: When you shot the photographs in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003 and 2004, during the height of the wars, what were you feeling and thinking at the time you took those pictures versus when you sat down to write the text years later? How did your thinking evolve? Or were your feelings the same as when you first took the pictures?
HR: Not necessarily. In Afghanistan it was so overwhelming, such an overload. I had never been to Afghanistan before and I didn’t really know much of its history outside of a little bit about the Soviet/Afghan war. Basically, I could kind of pass the smell test for having read my history. But I came back from the first trip and I bought like every book, “Ghost Wars,” “Soldiers of God,” etc. I tried to immerse myself in learning about the Soviet/Afghan war and then started reading backwards into the Mongols, Alexander the Great, the Anglo/Afghan wars, what it means to be Pashtun and how damn confusing all of that is. Then I met a guy from the State Department who is one of the experts on Afghanistan, who goes there like every six months and stays and makes this big report. He became a pal of mine. I met him on the flight back from Okinawa and he goes, “Look, I can’t give anything classified but I can put you on the mailing list for my mail-out that I send to the Navy and different universities” ’cause that’s all, you know, that can be read by students. I said, “Put me on the list!” And he would send me these really detailed reports on his evaluation of Afghanistan and every time he goes it would be another bad report. I mean the place was falling apart and one of the main reasons it was falling apart is we were there. When we leave it kind of goes back to its chaotic norm. But we feel this need … well also we want their oil and minerals, well we want the minerals and we need the country to get the pipeline out of Turkmenistan and so we need them, geopolitically, and we need them to just shut-up and get in line, but Afghans don’t play that. Look at your history. Even Obama falls for it but he thinks it’s going to be different and I don’t know if he’s ever seen the documentary “Rethink Afghanistan,” there is that one guy, the Che Guevara kind of charismatic guy who says, “you’re going to have to leave. You get to choose how you’re leaving,” like you know, basically, “on a stretcher, in a box, but you’re leaving, trust me on this” and he’s kind of laughing, like look at your history. I mean we have such a smart president, I can’t believe he’s still sticking his nose in there. But none of those sentiments were occurring to me, to answer the question, none of those sentiments were occurring to me when I took those photos. I was just basically kind of like “wow that’s a crazy shot.” This guy in that big chopper coming back. Such a great look at Afghanistan, basically in the distance from Pakistan, right on the border going back toward Bagram. It’s just a great shot of this young guy. What you don’t see is he’s sitting with his legs splayed and between his legs is a Mountain Dew bottle and he’s spitting his “chew,” that tobacco stuff, into it because the day is over.
On a good day that gate is down and there is a Black Hawk to his left following us, basically protecting us. On a bad day, that gate is up and there’s a machine gunner with a machine gun barrel right at the top of it. So obviously it was a good day, stand down, get out your tobacco, you can go back to the dining facility and you got through another day, where you kept all your fingers and none of your friends were blown up and there was a restfulness about it, ’cause we’d been on Chinooks all day, they’re like taxies out there and that was the last.
We were at the Khost-Gardez pass near two forward operating bases on the Pakistan border meeting the troops and hanging out with some Marines out there on a mission and they had a bunch of Navy Medics out there with them so I was hanging out with them. Some heavy mission, they couldn’t tell me what it was. It was all their Marine “A” males, all these steroided out 250 pound killers. They have different Marines for different purposes and these guys were obviously their “A” Team, and they were just like popping out of their shirts. Ridiculous. I’d say, “Where you guys going?” and they’d say, “ah, sir, if we told you we’d have to kill you.” So, they’d make a joke about it but they weren’t going to tell you anything. And that’s when I learned that the Navy was the Marines medics. I said, “What are you Navy guys doing here, we’re in mountains, desert?” And they told me the Marines have no medical, we’re the medical. It’s like Military Intelligence 101, but nobody ever taught me this stuff. I’m not military. But a lot of those photos from Iraq and Afghanistan, I was quite politicized, I knew what I was not into, it was the Bush administration era so I knew what I wasn’t into and I knew that our occupation in these places was bullshit. But it was afterwards, getting home and learning more history and seeing how many centuries Afghanistan has repelled invaders and occupiers that allowed me to write that one thing where I’m writing basically in the character of a mujahideen fighter.
JL: Your narrative succinctly captured that history.
HR: Also, when we were driving in Kabul one day there were these guys squatting on the side of the road with their AK-47s and they kind of grin mercilessly at the Army guys we’re traveling with who give them the stare right back. They’re kind of scared of each other. And these guys on the side of the road basically work for the Warlords and they pull over local cars, you know, every few times they’re going to pull you over and extract a fee, it’s a toll road, so say the Warlords. Obviously, they’re not going to pull over a military transport. But we watched them pulling over these beat up little cars, they just come over and they just take, you know, probably three cents. It’s how you get home that day. Because he knows where you live. You’re going to see them again and again and again, so you don’t ever blow them off. You might beg off one day, you know, “Look, I’m broke today.” But they’ll catch you next Wednesday. But when you see the age of these AK-47s, some of these guys carry it’s their grandfathers’ gun. And you realize that this is just in the blood, it’s in their culture. There is not one damn thing about our presence that’s new to them. This is their life. And when you chopper over Afghanistan you look down and you see kids playing, making like playgrounds out of Russian war junk. There’s a trashed Soviet tank with the kids swinging on the barrel.
JL: There are also the prisons from that era, too.
HR: Yeah, what do you do with it? The first time I went to Bagram some wise guys had taken all these MiG fighter jets … The Russians apparently had to leave very quickly and they left a bunch of MiGs. Which is a very big plane, as far as Jet Fighters, it’s a big heavy plane. I bet they’re smaller and lighter now, but the MiG is a big beast. And someone with a forklift had stacked them, like one going north/south and one going east/west, kind of criss-cross on top of each other. Me and my road manager, Mike, had an afternoon off. Your days are very structured, they go, “ok, you got three hours R&R.” So we got this guy we met to drive us out to this MiG pile. And we climbed up the pile of MiGs and I’m taking photos and my friend Mike has borrowed a toolbox and he’s taking dials off and he’s like can I take some dials off, they said “yes” and I’m crawling around. And they say, “OK, you guys realize there are live ejector seats on those planes and if you hit the button the chair will go and it will tear your head off with it, so don’t, don’t, these planes are not to be fucked with.” And of course we’re crawling all over them like idiots. I went back there a second time. I said, “Hey, let’s go to the MIG playground” and they said, “Ah sir, that’s gone.” Of course they could’ve been bullshitting me. But there is so much leftover stuff. In the beginning of the book you see that “mines” sign with that jet engine that was shot down probably by a stinger missile that we gave those guys.
JL: But Afghanistan is the “good war.” That’s what President Obama said.
HR: There’s so much war stuff in Afghanistan. It’s what these people live in. It is home. Every American soldier, since, well, besides the Civil War, they get to go home. They leave on an airplane and go home and the people they leave behind… like, I mean, if you go to Vietnam they’re still climbing out of the Vietnam War. They’re still finding bones in Cambodia and Laos. Forget it, in Laos they’re still being blown up by bomblets that Nixon dropped. They’re still live. Like in Laos there’s some amazing statistic, it’s like two something pieces of unexploded ordnance per Laotian. It’s mostly kids that pick this shit up. I visited a little girl in Bagram hospital, She was an Afghani girl. She lost her leg to a land-mine leftover from the Soviet war and she stepped on it, took her leg off. So people are still getting blown up. So these wars have a very lasting effect. That’s one of the things I try and capture in this book and I’m going for it even harder with the next book because I was in more war-torn places this time around. That’s one of the main pushes of the “Occupants” book is a lot of Americans don’t get to travel and they don’t get history books that are transparent enough. They don’t get to see how long these wars last. That the war … It’s like napalm, it keeps burning days after you drop it, and these wars keep killing. The Soviet/Afghan war is still killing Afghans and they never talk about the Agent Orange.
JL: Do you think the public is sheltered or, rather, that the public simply doesn’t care about these global issues?
HR: I get asked that a lot and rather then take the easy way out and put my fellow Americans in the pejorative, its easy to go “oh, they’ve got nothing … they take it all for granted.” They do live with the information that they’ve been given. You know if you’re told fat free yogurt won’t make you fat you’ll eat a lot of it and if water keeps coming out of the tap, you just think water keeps coming out of the tap and you take forty minute showers and get your “me time” on and if there’s always food that makes you feel good coming out of McDonalds, you keep eating it, you deal with the information you’ve been given. There’s a lot of stuff like that that American’s don’t know and since a lot of Americans don’t have a passport, I’ll get a passport for them and since a lot of Americans don’t know what a war looks like thirty, forty years later, how agent orange is now in its fourth generation and it’s still doing damage. You might be more hesitant to start the next one. And so, basically, the book is an anti-war statement, an anti-globalization statement … This country is poorly served by their media
JL: How so?
HR: I mean why aren’t you writing for Newsweek? They can’t handle you. That’s why. GE [General Electric] won’t like what you have to say. It would hurt their sacred bottom line.
JL: Well, it seems pretty clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to write the types of investigative stories I’ve been publishing for the past several years, particularly the stories that deal with Guantanamo, torture and civil liberties, issues that, unfortunately, much of the public no longer seems interested in reading about.
HR: Exactly. It’s like when Cenk Uygur left MSNBC. He’s a pretty much a no bullshit guy and he said, “I can’t do this and live with myself.” And so Americans are poorly served by their media, you know, for the war machine and propaganda machine and the global empire and they’re poorly served by what they are being told is representative government and it’s not and I blame Republicans and Democrats for that. Republicans more but Democrats are not immune. They get off on this stuff. They get paid. That’s why I really like what the Occupy Movement is addressing. You have a country that has been poorly served by its two major forces, media and government. The third being corporations who have infiltrated government so I don’t really see a distinction between government and corporations.
JL: It’s interesting that we’re unique in this regard.
HR: It’s true. We Americans look funny when we’re in France because we don’t travel, we are fairly un-cultured whereas Europeans go to Africa all the time because it’s right there. Like Europeans have seen every European country. They meet other young Europeans, like twenty year olds, who are nonviolent and they are pro environment and they are so switched on. Like “wow” If I had acted like that when I was twenty I would just have gotten my ass kicked! We’re just very belligerent, and I’m not trying to put Americans down, by and large I think we’re nice people, but we operate with the information we’re given and we are limited by the ignorance that is kind of injected into the media and into the TV shows. Like when you watch British humor it goes over a lot of Americans heads, but if British people watch American humor it’s like, “God, you people are idiots! This isn’t funny, it’s like for five year olds!” I think we’re kept at a disadvantage to keep us going to prison and going to war, which is a little broad brushed …
JL: But wouldn’t that indicate that our society is becoming more and more sheltered in the sense that we’re nailed down to the computer 24/7 and we’re not experiencing the physical world?
HR: It’s true and we do that a lot. We Americans we now watch pay-per-view, we don’t go to gigs, we don’t have sex we watch porn. Americans have really receded. When I was in Black Flag is when MTV started. We watched people start staying home when MTV started. It was like, “Aww come on!” ‘Cause they could get their rock and roll in the living room. Chuck Dukowski [founding member and bass player] of Black Flag said, “You watch, this is going to be very hard on touring bands.” Eventually, things evened out and it became a help for touring bands. But people will cocoon if you give them popcorn and macaroni and cheese they will watch a lot of HBO and they will not go outside and you give them video games they will never go outside and you get what you get. You get people who don’t want to know and don’t investigate, who don’t dig deep. So how do you do it? How do you get the public to pay attention? Well, do what you do. Keep doing these kick ass articles that you write. More and more people who don’t always get out as much, they do read. And there’s a lot of young people who actually do read. And there are a lot of young people whose fathers were homophobes, but they’re not gonna be. But if you go to South Africa, I mean, you’ll see some old Africans that miss Apartheid. But you talk to anyone under fifty there and like, you say, “Apartheid” and they’re like, “oh please, are you kidding?” They want nothing to do with it. So they’re moving on.
I go to South Africa every year for shows. It’s a great audience and every year you go, it’s getting better. The people are just evolving. As one journalist said to me, “We’re waking up, we’re emerging from the hangover of Apartheid.” That’s what he said and I said, “Yeah, it’s like a hangover.” He said, “Yeah, it’s going to take a while … generational.” I think to a certain degree, I mean look at who they selected as president. My father’s probably still in some field with his rifle waiting for Sean Hannity to give him his next directive. He’s probably still mad about it. So this country is changing. I mean in 1960 Barack Obama would have been shot for standing up and giving a speech. It’s amazing Muhammad Ali wasn’t shot just for being Muhammad Ali. Besides fighting, he did a lot of public speaking, he was an amazing speaker. You watch some videos you can’t believe there’s not a bullet going through that guy’s head. It’s unbelievable how he survived that. The guts it must have taken, while watching other people get literally assassinated. There’s no way he wasn’t getting eighty death threats a day. And so I think things are changing and hopefully for the better. That’s one reason I do like the Internet, it gives a guy like you a chance to get a bunch of people who can read you worldwide for free right now, that can just click and get it.
JL: I understand and I do appreciate that I have the opportunity to publish on the Internet because the stories are accessible to a global audience.
HR: I mean there’s definitely people you’re pissing off so you know you’re doing something good.
JL: You mentioned Tehran earlier. We’ve implemented numerous sanctions on Iran over the country’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Iranian nuclear scientists have been executed. There is constant chatter about whether Israel will launch an attack against the country’s nuclear facilities. When people hear about Iran they think “terrorists.” You were there. You shot some stunning photographs. What can you tell us about this country that the public seems to know very little about beyond government talking points?
HR: The first thing I would tell someone who said, “Well, they just want to kill us all. Bloody Arabs!” Ok, first off they’re Persian. They don’t do Sharia law. Their version of Islam is one of the loosest, most artistic, poetical versions and there’s a huge difference between Persian and Arab. It’s just two massively different cultures. And what a lot of people don’t know, obviously you do, was in 1953 Operation AJAX, the American version of it, we had a different name for it, we took out [democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad] Mosaddegh and that was basically Winston Churchill whining to two different American presidents. I think Truman said, “No” and Eisenhower buckled and said, “oh, ok” and that was one of those early days of the CIA when it was OSS [Office of Strategic Services], was Operation AJAX, and they went in there and rabble roused and got a really good man, Mosaddegh, thrown out for nationalizing the oil and taking the Anglo/Persian oil companies out of Iran. And they were screwing the Iranians with the Persians out of a ton of oil. There’s that great book, “All The Shah’s Men,” it’s a quick read and it gives you all you need to know about it. Knowing that, why wouldn’t Iranians be wary of Americans? Of course they would. And then there’s the hostage crisis, which we brought upon ourselves I think by being so into the Shah. You know, you push in that way, the pushback, you might not get what you want when the next regime comes in. It’s like a caricature of how it should be. It’s overblown. It’s like lot of people in Afghanistan liked the Taliban, ’cause they talked tough, they said, “We’ll protect you, we’ll protect you from these invaders” and they said, “ok” and they bought in. And then the Taliban became the occupiers and said, “Now we’re going to throw acid in your women’s faces if we see their faces, if they’re not veiled.” America does that all the time and then we just come to the conclusion that they hate our freedom. No, they don’t. They love their freedom. They just don’t like you taking it from them.
So Iranians would be well within their rights to be very wary of any American foreign policy, any American visitor or any American sanction. For these countries, sanctions are nothing new and I’ve seen the impact of sanctions. I’ve been in quite a few sanctioned countries, like Burma. Sanctions don’t do a damn thing except hurt the poor. The military and the elite, they always get their vodka and their brandy, you know, they get all of it. The poor just get squeezed. Like in Burma, things are better now, Thein Sein, the new leader, he’s much different then Than Shwe and maybe things will get better for the people of Burma. They’re wonderful people and they deserve better. But in Iran they have oil.
JL: So you believe oil is at the heart of all of the rhetoric regarding threats of war?
HR: I don’t think that I know more then a guy like John McCain who gets classified reports but there is a real push on the right, I mean you see how lonely they are without a war. And to hear, like, John McCain, who I have such a dislike for … I used to not dislike him and then I read a really good book on him. He’s just a flip flopping windsack. He’s just … he’ll say anything to stay in office. He’s just one of those guys, a company man. He’s getting weird in his old age. Can you imagine McCain as president? It would have been maybe the biggest disaster, worse than Bush because at least Bush wasn’t senile. McCain was ripping Obama for bringing the troops home from Iraq like, “it’ll be seen as a disaster in American history and I hope he [Obama] gets scolded appropriately” and I’m like “shut …!” I wrote a thing about it on my website and I said, “Man it’s time for you to shuffle off, cause now you’re just, you’re talking crazy.” And those guys without a war … They are flipping! They don’t know what to do with themselves. And guys like McCain, he’s all cattywampus now. And it just shows you how much they need that because it will be harder and harder for them to justify that ridiculous cold war era budget. And if you make your economy a war economy, you know, I’m no expert, but it seems to me you’re going to fail. ‘Cause you’re not part of the future, you’re part of this thing that just destroys and after a while you run out of shit to destroy and then ultimately, hundreds of years from now, you really have to invade Canada to give them democracy. Next we’ll invade Belgium. Because you run out of enemies and so you just make up fake enemies. Iran is not our enemy, we’re making them that way, we’re poking them and they’ll poke back. Then we’ll have to go in there and take care of their democracy for them. For the next Republican president, it might be 2016, and it might be a good long run after Obama … I hope I’m wrong but I could be right about that … Iran is going to be the first thing out of that guy’s mouth. They want it. I’m all, you know, I’m signing off on a lot of my … I get a lot of hate mail so I always sign off “Elizabeth Warren 2016.” It makes them froth at the mouth.
JL: You mentioned the Occupy movement earlier and I wanted to speak about it in the context of music. I was listening to Fugazi’s “Repeater” recently and I was thinking how every song on that album still resonates today. Why haven’t we seen hardore bands like Fugazi or Black Flag emerge from all of this anger and frustration and disillusionment? The issues Occupy has been against are similar to the issues you railed against during the Reagan-era when you joined Black Flag?
HR: Well I think that, first off you have guys like Tom Morello who are actually going and playing at Occupy sites. He’s a very bright guy. He’s incredible. Occupy is still so young. I think you’ll see some kind of morphing of Occupy where this turns into something where we’re going to occupy this concert for three days and not like have this war with the cops over Zuccotti park which I think is kind of, you know, no one cares. I mean I’ve been to five Occupy sites and I spent all day at Occupy New York and I hung out with cops. Everybody was just kind of hanging around. It was very peaceful and everyone’s super friendly. But the Banker types just walk around Zuccotti Park and go into their offices and do their evil stuff. So, until you start moving legislation around it’s just a bunch of youth intents. I have a lot of jobs. I literally do not have the time to go camp out at Occupy Wall Street. I just don’t have the time, I can’t give you three days of me standing in a park, I cannot do it. So there’s a lot of us who, you know, sorry, I got things going on. And since no one is like getting killed, like in Vietnam, you know, youth was getting killed so you start writing songs. But there was also a draft. Kids are getting ripped from their neighborhoods. But now with the volunteer military you want to go play in the sandbox? Go ahead, John, go go, go! Have a good time. There’s no one – you’re not being conscripted. [Talk radio host] Randi Rhodes was on her radio show a while back saying, “Where was the big celebration when the soldiers came home?” What do you mean? It’s a volunteer army. They just came home from their job. You don’t expect there to be a huge – I’m not anti troop, I’m just saying, why would there be ticker tape parades? Nothing was won, it was a fake war and it was a volunteer military, they’re just coming home to the base, so, “hurrah” but in lower case. So I think the Occupy thing, finally, someone’s talking about [the 1933] Glass-Steagall [Act], someone’s talking about deregulation ’cause that is the real – this is the stuff that you’ve been talking about for a long time.
People like Thom Hartmann, you know, Janine Garofalo, people who know a thing or two have been waxing, whining and screaming about this stuff for, shit man, since Reagan. You know, those that really caught on. And Clinton, he was the guy that blew out Glass-Steagall. That was one of his last days and I bet he regrets that now. He’s not a dumb guy but that was a mistake and so was DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] and so was NAFTA. So even the smart guys blow it. But I think Occupy is definitely – you know they’re on to something ’cause the FOX News people no longer make fun of them anymore, it’s just hatred now, they just hate them and I’ve never seen FOX News hosts when someone gets their goat. Cause usually they’re like, “Oh we wish you well” as they laugh. Now they’re pissed. And its really funny to see them get emotional, they’re … wow, they are really mad. This is the most honest you’ve ever been in your whole life.
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In addition to his nonstop touring schedule, Henry Rollins writes a must-read column for LA Weekly, hosts a series on the National Geographic channel called “Animal Underground; hosts a weekly radio show on public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, California, which is where I first discovered the genius of ragtime jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton; operates his own publishing company, 2.13.61. (his birth date); acts; and does voiceovers.
Explaining his “scattershot career path” in the “About the Author” section of his book, Rollins, perhaps unwittingly, provides his readers with a lesson in humility.
“I am a high school graduate from the minimum-wage working world, which instructs me to say yes to employment opportunities…. I have no illusions as to where I should have ended up.”
Transcription by Jennifer L. Cuneo